It’s a World of Fantasy at the Mat Bevel Institute

May 31, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Tucson has scores of artists. None match up to Ned Schaper aka General Belief System Technology Project Expert Mat Bevel aka 52 fantasmagorical characters, a foursome of them named General Public, General Anesthetic (“who doesn’t say much”), General Boxhead and General Lee Speaking, the curator general of the Museum of Kinetic Art.Ned Schaper's Iron Butterly is at 6th Avenue and Toole Ave.

In truth, Ned Schaper is the mastermind behind what he has called the Mat Bevel Institute Museum of Kinetic Art since 1987, now marking its 25th anniversary, though Schaper was unaware of the milestone until this writer mentioned it.

“I named it the Mat Bevel Institute because I wanted my art to be serious. I make you say ‘institute,’” Schaper said.

You could say Schaper’s daily life is performance art. Schaper describes himself as a kinetic sculptor and performance artist.

“Ned Schaper plays Mat Bevel and Mat Bevel plays all the characters,” explained Ned Schaper – or was it Mat Bevel?

Schaper’s museum houses 140 of his kinetic sculptures, all made of found items, either found by him or supplied to him by a helpful public. They are all props or outfits for his 52 characters for his performance art that he likes to stage for school aged children.

“These are my props that I use to get my message across,” he said.

More on his message later.

His masterpiece is the “3 Days of Beveldom,” 15 hours of theater spread out over three days. The epic revolves around solid, liquid, gas; Army, Navy, Air Force; brains, blood, breath. Day One is solid, Army, brains. You get the pattern for days two and three.

“I’ve performed all of it live,” he said cryptically. The three-day, 15-hour version has seen no audience.

But Schaper just since May 4 has experienced his first public art display in his 25 years with and as Mat Bevel, thanks to the efforts of city transportation planner Jennifer Donofrio and Tucson Pima Arts Council Public Art Manager Mary Ellen Wooten and funding from City Councilmember Regina Romero and the Warehouse Arts Management Organization.

Ned Schaper with one of his 52 characters, Condo Launch Pad.

The Iron Butterfly kinetic sculpture at Toole Avenue and 6thAvenue is Schaper’s first piece of art displayed in public. It is prominent at the gateway of the Warehouse Arts District’s new streetscape art walk improvements for Toole Avenue installed on a single day last October.

A butterfly’s 6½ -foot-wide wings slowly flap up and down from noon to midnight. The butterfly is lighted at night.

But there’s more than the butterfly wings. There are three wheels that create a flywheel effect that drive the wings.

“The mechanism is a Bevel Butterfly Model M wing flapping mechanism with three hinges,” Schaper said. “I could have a little solar panel motor but they made me put in a quarter horsepower motor. I can take my little finger and turn it. This is basically 700-year-old technology.”

That statement gets to the root of Schaper’s fundamental philosophy that drives the Mat Bevel Institute. Before technology and automation took over in the past century, most everybody knew how to make and take care of the basic functions in life.

Schaper notices with each passing generation, people have fewer skills to make anything. What his kinetic art is all about is inspiring people to start using their minds and hands to make things once again.

“The idea is we have to get back to making things happen,” Schaper said. “The movement of objects is not in our minds. It becomes exposed to you when you work with things. You have to constantly be doing things. You need to start working with things. Don’t ever let anybody tell you, ‘you can’t do that, don’t do that.’ People stop experimenting at a young age.

“All my props I’ve collected all these years, I’m trying to figure out how to get these out to the world. My real thing is teaching young people. If you don’t believe in magic, give me 15 mintues.”

Just about anything metallic in nature can be part of a Mat Bevel kinetic art piece. Bicycle parts often come into play, as has a random trombone and candelabra.

Ned Schaper as General Public, one of his 52 characters.

“Men come in and say ‘Where are your tools?’” Schaper said. “ I don’t weld. I never have. I suck my stuff together. I use a lot of wire. I wait for things to fit. I don’t drill holes.”

Schaper’s institute has been at 530 N. Stone Ave. since 1995, but he looks destined to lose the structure to the Downtown Links roadway that will link the Barraza Aviation Parkway to Interstate 10.

“To me, the building is another found object,” Schaper said. “Everything works out for me with objects. I’m not stuck on this building.”

Schaper moved to Tucson on Christmas Day 1979, worked as a printmaker in a geochemistry lab, but by 1983 thought New York was the place an artist should be and he left Tucson at the tail end of the big flood that year.

“I was thinking we were going to New York City forever,” he said. “I performed as Ned in the Lower East Village. New York is really neat. It’s the way to go with a finished concoction but not where you go to work it out.”

When he got back to Tucson, he worked in a frame shop, where you cut bevels into mats.

“It says on the mat bevel. You get the joke,” Schaper said.

And thus the name for his Museum of Kinetic Art. More often than not with Schaper, philosophy comes in equal measure with a joke. Thus the full title of his alter ego, General Belief System Technology Project Expert Mat Bevel.

“It was a joke at first but it makes absolute sense now,” Schaper said.

He grew up in Alliance, Ohio, home to a garage door opener company and the world’s largest crane companies, easily triggering this lifelong fascination Schaper has had for kinetic art.

“My dad would not let us take art,” he said.

Schaper, 55, started to draw at age 19 when he ruptured a disc while he was a swimming coach. He made drawings to explain physics, his initial major before he switched to entomology, the study of insects. He has always had a notebook with him since that time.

None of this directed Schaper to a traditional or any sort of career.

“For the longest time in my 20s and 30s I had no idea what I supposed to be doing,” Schaper said.

Now he has his 52 characters, 140 kinetic sculptures, the “3 Days of Beveldom,” but all of it has remained within the Mat Bevel Institute and Schaper has not performed much of late.

“I need to find a way to do my show again and start getting my philosophy out,” Schaper said.